A case has been filed in a Johannesburg court on Wednesday by 13 plaintiffs on behalf of an estimated 100,000 people, according to law firms Leigh Day and Mbuyisa Moleele. The firms plan to apply for a class action suit.
They are demanding compensation and a clean-up of the area. Anglo American will “defend its position,” the company said.
A group of Zambian women and children is alleging that the mining company caused widespread lead poisoning from a mine it owned until 1974 in the northern city of Kabwe.
“Generations of children have been poisoned by the operations of the Kabwe mine, originally known as Broken Hill, which caused widespread contamination of the soil, dust, water and vegetation,” the firms said in a statement. “The main sources of this poisonous lead were from the smelter, ore processing and tailings dumps.”
The group lawsuit is the latest over its decades of mining in southern Africa. In 2018, Anglo and five other companies paid about $390 million to settle a class action by former gold miners suffering from the respiratory disease silicosis.
“Once the claim is received, the company will review the claims made by the firm and will take all necessary steps to vigorously defend its position,” Anglo said in an emailed response to questions, adding it was never the majority owner of the Kabwe mine.
Anglo held an interest in the mine, at one stage the world’s biggest lead operation, from 1925 to 1974, when it was nationalized by the government. While the operation about 100 kilometres (60 miles) north of the Zambian capital, Lusaka, was eventually shut in 1994, output during Anglo’s ownership accounted for about two-thirds of the lead that now contaminates the area, the law firms said.
“Substantial emissions of lead into the local environment were due to deficiencies in the design and systems of operation and control of lead, which Anglo American South Africa failed to ensure were rectified,” they said. “Anglo American South Africa failed to ensure the clean-up of the communities’ contaminated land.”
Lead poisoning can cause health problems ranging from learning difficulties to infertility, brain damage and, in some cases, death. In a 2019 report, Human Rights Watch said that a third of the population of Kabwe, or more than 76,000 people, live in lead-contaminated areas.
The lawsuit was filed in South Africa because at the time of the mine’s operation Anglo was headquartered in Johannesburg. The company is now based in London.